Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Sandbox versus the Story

Where does your game fit?

The Old School Primer lists a series of identifiers that distinguish old school games from their modern descendants - precepts like "Rulings not Rules", and "Player Skill over Character Abilities", and so on, as hallmarks of old school games.  It's a good starting point, but it doesn't articulate for me why old school adventures and campaigns are so radically different in structure from what gets published today, outside some OSR guys.  So there's more to it than just being rules-lite.  There's a whole paradigm of exploration (and by necessity, player initiated adventure) that differentiates today's adventures from the stuff I read from the 70's and how they play at the table.  I've read some adventures recently, published to be "old school game compatible", that I wouldn't consider old school style and it got me thinking there's more to it than just using an old set of rules.

The Sandbox vs the Story Adventure
The sandbox adventure involves areas to explore - large hex crawls, sprawling dungeons, site-based locations.  It could be star sectors and planets, like in Traveler.  The sandbox is usually supplemented by lots of random tables - either for use in-game (like the D&D wandering monster table) or pre-game - like the Traveler planetary generation systems.  Randomization is the enemy of game balance, so character death can be frequent.  But sandboxes give the players near-universal agency to go and do what they want.

Modern adventures present a series of interconnected scenes, events, or locales, and the characters move from scene to scene as the story develops.  Character is important, and many modern adventures spill ink on back story and motivation.  If the players  deviate from the plot line, it forces the game master to do some serious on-the-spot improvisation for the things the author didn't take into account.  In the D&D space, things like Adventure Paths or linear 4E delves fall into this model.

Some notes on the Diagram:
Classic D&D and it's adventures
Fast, disposable characters, lite-rules, site-based locations, heavy emphasis on exploration - welcome to old school style play.

1E AD&D and adventures
Characters are a little more complicated and detailed, but most AD&D adventures are site-based and still free form.

Dragonlance and later adventures
Detailed characters, pages of back story, story and event-based modules, rail road plots.  stamp: NEW SCHOOL.  Next.

Call of Cthulhu
Disposable characters.  Adventures tend to be a mix of site-based and plot-driven - the later in the publishing history, they more they resemble plotted stories.

Characters are more detailed and intricate than D&D, with lengthy background generated through chargen.  Heavy focus on exploration and randomly generated subsectors, planets, flora and fauna.

World of Darkness
Fairly detailed characters and scene-based stories.  NEW SCHOOL.

3.x and 4E
Intricate characters (feats, skills, and prestiges, oh my!) and scripted adventure paths and delves.

4E has no support for sandboxes or randomization (the system is enslaved by balance) whereas 3.x did have it's outlier publishers - Necro, Goodman - that developed some old-school site-based adventures.

Final thoughts:
What do you think of the thesis that only "Rules-Lite" + "Sandbox Play" = old school gaming, and "Rules-Lite" + "Story-Driven" is not?  Conversely, does anyone feel that when they were playing 3.X but going through a Goodman Adventure or the Necro JG Wilderlands, they were re-living the glory days of their youth?

If there are other modern games that feature quick and easy character generation, scant rules, and a heavy focus on exploration and sandbox play, I'd argue they fit the old school paradigm.  I don't know - something like Mongoose Traveler or the Stars Without Number game, even though chronologically they're modern games.

I just need to come up with some names for the quadrants.